- "I have found three great times for thinking: in the shower, seated on the john, and while walking By far the greatest of these is walking." - Colin Fletcher
The idea came to me whole on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At high noon look I into Mr. Lincoln's kind, grave eyes. "I'm going to take a walk this summer," I tell him.
From the moment I speak it out loud I know it is true, but I have to thrash it out with my boss when I get back to California. Four months leave, this year? At the start of our national expansion, to go hiking? Sam can't believe it, but I'm an irresistible force. I promise to find a replacement, train her so well he'll never miss me. I lie, knowing it will be too late when he finds out different. But I can't give it much thought, there are too many other items on my checklist to resolve. Job shit, check. Wilderness permits, check. Sub-let apartment... what about the cat? Check, check.
One thing I don't have to worry about is a partner. When I ask my new boyfriend if he'd like to "take a walk on the Pacific Crest Trail with me this summer?" he says, "I'd love to," as if I'm inviting him for coffee. And he takes over the equipment detail. No wonder I like the guy. "I'm going to try fly fishing," he says. Oh yeah, what about food?
I find a little dehydrator at the flea market. All May I carry home loads of produce from the farmers market. Slice, blanch, spread on the racks. The next morning there are eight ounces of Lilliputian provisions. Weigh, measure, calculate calories. Minimum one and one half pounds of dried food per person per day. 1.5 x 2 people x 120 days equals 360 pounds.
We spread it all out one weekend in my living room and study it. Sealed in ziplock bags it looks like space food, enough to go to the moon and back. My beautiful dried fruit and vegetables, oatmeal, powdered hummus, cous cous, bulgar, lentils, rice, pasta. Bisquick, RyCrisp, cornmeal, bouillon cubes, tea, powdered milk, a first-rate spice kit, lots of garlic. Mountain Suds, moleskin, matches, multiple vitamins, sunscreen. I get four little packages of tampons without applicators. Mark buys four boxes of condoms. It all gets packed in eight boxes of 45 pounds each, one for each two-week leg of our trip. One box we divide now between our backpacks. Seven we mail to pick-up points along our route. Provisioning, check.
There is so much yet to do in June. I start scratching out items on my to do list-that-will-not-end, deciding to ignore this, do without that. "You can wing it," says the left side of my brain. "You'll be sorry," murmurs the right.
Maybe I'm fooling myself. Maybe I just don't know enough about this. In the mornings I can talk myself out of the night's strenuous doubts. After all, I do volunteer trail maintenance in the Ventana Wilderness where we pack our tools over grades as steep as any in the Sierra. Just for fun, because I like being out there and somehow want to care for a place that feels like home. I've cut brush and built foot bed until simple hiking feels like R&R. But I've never been out longer than a week at a time. I start running barefoot on the beach every night to toughen my feet.
I put away unread all the true life adventure stories about long distance trekking that people press on me, only glancing at the tales of gangrenous blisters, psychological trauma and thighs chafed raw. Did those hikers too start out smug? Many of my friends are seasoned backpackers. That they are frankly impressed with this undertaking intimidates me.
One whole night of the last week is given over to a surprise going-away party. None of the well-meaning gifts make the weight cut. One gorgeous volume of Birds of the Sierra is heavier than my sleeping bag. Suddenly ounces are of the essence. My sturdy Osprey pack weighs five pounds empty, down bag and ThermaRest mattress, three. My half of the tent, stove, cook pot, water filter, first aid kit and sundries, five pounds. Absolutely necessary clothing, one paperback novel, candle lantern, six pounds. Reserve 22.5 pounds for two-week food supply. Topo maps, sewing kit, notebook, sunglasses. Filled water bottle. The last puts me over the fifty pound limit I'd set for my pack. I take out my camp shoes. We are yet to discover the tao of ultralight.
On the fourth of July I draw the final line though the rest of my now dog-eared list. I'd soon know if anything really critical lurks among the remaindered items. We have absolutely impeccable boots and a good, stout bear rope. It's time to go.
A friend drives us to our starting point in the Dome Land Wilderness near Bakersfield. He walks down to camp with us that night beside the South Fork of Kern River. We all know he'll have a hard time hauling his big, sedentary frame the two miles back up to his truck. The water level is surprisingly low. The guys don't catch any fish. I lie in the warm shallow pools mulling over what's to come.
I don't sleep that night but watch the heavy full moon track across the sky. The Big Dipper rotates slowly on its handle until near midnight its bowl spills out whatever it holds for us. In the morning no one wants to leave. And so we stay another day along the river, eating 1.5 pounds of food, finishing the thin novels we'd packed for the first two weeks. Tuesday morning we climb half way up the canyon and say goodbye to John Fred. We turn north at the triangular blue and white trail sign that marks the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600 mile route spanning the mountain ranges from Mexico to the Canadian border. It is 125 miles to Cedar Grove, our first resupply point. We have 12 days of food.
We chose a departure point at about 5,000 feet elevation, just before the very southernmost tail of the Sierra Nevada, wanting to start with the entire climb to the crest. We haven't formulated a destination out loud yet, but privately I intend to cover the complete stretch of "The Range of Light" to its meeting with the Cascades near Lassen, about 700 miles north.
The first day is a serene stroll though Kennedy Meadows, full of cow pies and cattle. At noon we startle ourselves by scaring two bears up the bank from a shady pool. We decide they must have been mating, make love ourselves for luck. We follow the dry bed of Crag Creek through Sequoia National Forest for a long time before finding enough water to make camp. "Picked a bunch of rose hips for tea beside a streamlet," says my log. I remember more clearly sitting before a little cooking fire that night, the air so still the smoke rises straight up. The temperature is perfectly mild, no bugs are out. We've covered 13 miles and our feet feel pretty good. All the day's solemnity evaporates and we grin at each other, realizing this extraordinary undertaking is turning out to be a piece of cake.
Next day we make our way through huge Monache Meadows to meet the South Fork of the Kern again. Already we've gotten the hang of the weather. The nights clear and still, each day warm enough to swim in the deeper pools and hike in shorts and tee shirts. The threatening buildup of afternoon thunder clouds bring only a few minutes of showers. We're getting good at hanging our food on a high tree branch at night, out of reach of the bears. No blisters yet. Not bad for the first days.
Friday morning, June 13, we are on top of the world. A sunny saddle just at timberline, awesome views of a lightening show far to the east. Around noon a hailstorm hits. A sonic boom splits the stillness, opens a blazing fissure above us. We are captivated by the spectacle until high velocity ice balls sting down. We get pelted pretty good as we run screaming for cover to a clump of snaggley pines where we cower, like sassy kids after a well-deserved spanking. For a long time we shiver there in our soaked tee shirts, too dumbfounded to get into our rain gear. "Seeing the elephant," is how the adventure stories describe it, coming face to face with a force so enormous creates equal parts of terror and euphoria.
The next day we see helicopters circling Mt Whitney and later learn they were bringing down the body of a hiker killed by lightening up there. We are never again blase about the weather, but the euphoria stays with us.
I begin to understand what my Zen friends refer to as the happiness of a true present. The moment-to-moment is so riveting here; regrets and worries pale in this fierce mountain light. There is nothing to do now but walk. And think. "In this silence I gather up elusive thoughts that flush like doves at the first disturbance," I write in my log. "Clarity of air and vision seem to bring clear-mindedness."
Notions of time and distance morph amid these immense vistas. When I look back from a high pass and see a meadow we left days ago, I feel like an ant crawling slow up a Pyramid. Other times my legs seem to stretch from peak to peak. A few miles, a thousand feet of elevation change, move us from lush spring wildflowers to barren, windswept moonscape. The climbing is challenging, I feel my lungs getting stronger breathing this diamond sharp air.
Water is low everywhere. One night we don't find the spring promised in our trail guide. It had rained some that afternoon and there are puddles. Mud puddles, too thick to force through our charcoal filter. "Dirty water," I extemporize. "You strain it several times through your bandana, and wait for it to settle clear." Wrong. You just go thirsty and make certain it doesn't happen again. The first rule of wilderness travel I learn is: know always how far you are from your next sure source of water. Okay, so we can't rely on the guidebook springs after three years of drought. I'll carry more water on doubtful days. But what to discard to make up the weight. I decide I send my long pants back from Cedar Grove. Even in shorts it's easy going on these royally maintained trails.
"The Golden Staircase," scaling 13,200 foot Forrester Pass, is named for the princely cost of dynamiting a passage through this highest point on the PCT. Even so, it's wide and flat enough to do a headstand on the summit. Eventually we get jaded with the trail's tameness and climb Shout of Relief Pass cross-country. Our boots take it on the chin off-trail. For a while we live above timberline, joke about the thick air below being fattening. It just isn't possible to pack as many calories as you burn climbing all day. "You look nice naked," Mark says, and I feel svelte for the first time in years.
Now we see few people between resupply stops. Those we meet are frankly curious. It's rather a new experience to have people so interested in what I'm doing. "Don't you miss hot showers," they ask. What I miss is the bone deep purity of plunges in those icy waters, where cleanliness truly is next to godliness. In one of the best pictures of the trip I'm stretched full length in a field of tiny flowers beside a pool of hot muck, completely covered in my own private mud bath. Weird, but therapeutic on my assorted bug bites, sunburn and sore muscles. Yes, every paradise has its flaws, but this is really living.
"And how do, well, you know..." the question trails off. What, shit in the woods? There's a whole book out about that now, but basically you walk 200 yards from any water source, trail or campsite and dig a cat hole eight inches deep, almost but not quite to the end of the topsoil, then you squat and probably find your bowels a lot easier to move than at home. You seal the used toilet paper in a ziplock bag until you can burn it safely in a campfire. (That book suggests all kinds of organic cleansing alternatives I haven't tried, snow, leaves, bark, etc.) Then you replace the topsoil and no one but Mr. Tom Brown, Jr. himself would know you've been there.
"What about food?" Food is wonderful. The concentrated savor of my lovingly dried vegetables really delivers. I get to love cooking on a fire of little sticks. Finding out that stove fuel goes half as far at these high altitudes as at sea level, we begin to save it for when we're above treeline. Dried fruit stewed with spicy dumplings a la Mark, the best breakfast ever invented. Worrying his fine Welsh brow, taming his long, restless limbs to slow motion stalking, Mark is learning to catch fish grown unwary in these little-disturbed waters. He woos them patiently and some nights when we really need it there's a mess of trout fried crisp in garlicy olive oil. "Protein is pure gold up here," says a too-thin kid from Oakland who is scrounging himself a first summer in the Sierra by offering to take leftover peanut butter and heavy blocks of cheese off the hands of short-trippers facing their last steep climb back to the trailhead.
"But surely you must miss people?" Oh my friends. When have I opened my heart to you as in the long, candlelit letters of that summer. And when have you come closer than in your handwriting on the care packages sent to us at Cedar Grove and Vermillion Valley; filled with brownies and good red wine and a month's worth of Doonesbury comic strips, they gave me back the thrill of a little kid at Christmas.
My people track me astutely. "Your mom called yesterday," says the ranger at Tuolumne Meadows when I go to retrieve the supply box there. "She was concerned about the fires here. I told her not to worry."
At Soda Springs there's a Fed Ex from my boss. "Call me right now. This is important. No shit, Sam." I know this man of a thousand shifting scenarios, know to my sorrow he probably won't remember by now why he sent the damn thing, but I call and mercifully get the office answering machine. "Sam, Sue. Thanks for your note. I've got to get out of here before dark, but I'll try to call you again from Sierra City, about the last week of September. Take care." As I leave the phone booth I realize it's the first time in years that I've dialed that number without sweaty palms and twisting stomach. I'm free and so I promise myself I will call back from Sierra City.
Somewhere I learn to walk without hurrying. Having no stated destination is a godsend. Nothing to work towards, nothing to measure against. Heading only generally north, we are free to meander the ranges, where dropping over a ridge can put you in a whole new world. When a hiker starting his trek asked what we'd learned so far, I found myself answering, "Just don't hurry. And wash your socks every day."
There is something more no one could have told me. The miracle of having everything, everything, you need on your back. Much as I'd tried to avoid the "thing trap" in the past, I am newly amazed by how little is necessary and how good it is to shake off the rest. How precious the few become when we cast off the many. We seem to know this in our human relations, that a true marriage requires forsaking all others. I begin to appreciate the quiet, skinny guy who walks beside me. I know the hitch in his step, the creak of his pack, the places his boots rub, and he knows mine.
I've always like the animistic worldview, where every pebble, feather, tree, holds its own vibrant life. Now I see where that comes from. When you aren't inundated by tons of stuff, you are able to take in the individuals of your world. And the familiar inevitably becomes important, becomes loved, or respected, or feared, but something real.
I think of our cook pot. I could draw every dent and crease of it blindfolded, I would know its weight in my hand among a thousand other pots. I can never forget the endearing way it cocked its wire handle like a comic eyebrow. I owe it a great gratitude for the comfort of tea and hot meals. One night I listened in the dark while a bear investigated the fireplace where we'd cooked dinner. Then the unmistakable crunch of tooth on metal. There was only one object of metal. I felt dismay, empathy as much as I'd feel for another person's injury. Not for our loss, but that such a fine, brave pot should be disabled. What joy in the morning to see only the lid chomped through and that good pot all intact. Now that was a real and valuable emotional experience I'd never before encountered, often as I've broken dishes. It's a richer world we deny ourselves by our excesses.
"But doesn't it get monotonous, being out there for so long?" we are asked. The days unfurl with infinite variety. Making our bed each evening in the perfect spot to rest this one night and leave gladly in the morning. The novelty of snow in August, spring in September at 12,000 feet. So much to study, a germinating seed pushing aside a grain of soil, Mark's beard curling out exuberantly russet, the moon and the stars in their movements. Where few things happen you see life clear. Sitting before the fire at night, mending socks like my grandma, I am happy.
Always the place names bring a hot lump of longing to my throat. Chicken Springs Lake where bony white tree trunks twist against a navy blue sky. Big Horn Plateau filled with frog ponds and marmots. Mist Falls and Paradise Valley. "Long sleeps, solitude, gratitude." The round stone sanctuary atop Muir Pass, and Pinchot where a famous photographer takes our photo with a big Ansel Adams style box camera he lugged all the way to the top. Little and Big Pete Meadows with the best trout fishing of the trip. Evolution Basin and my first bout with giardia. In mosquito-filled Rose Mary Meadow we read aloud The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin's exhilarating argument that man is by nature nomadic, best fit to wander in the wilderness. This begins to feel true.
Thousand Island Lake of the beautiful rainbows. The pristine Minarets where bears are timid and infamous Lyell Canyon where they are brazen, seen hurling themselves from tree tops to knock down a food bag strung on a branch below. To foil these hairy kamakazis we build a "scare bear" of sticks and dirty clothes beneath our cache. This amuses them greatly.
At Fish Hook Lake in smoldering Yosemite early snow falls in August like the answer to a firefighter's prayer. "Scenery indescribable," is all I write in my log, knowing I can never forget how it looks. At Grover Hot Springs deer season opens and now we meet hunters in the woods. Ever-romantic Devil's Corral where Mark and I went on our first date the year before and golden-leafed Granite Chief Wilderness, brand new to us. The Sawtooth Range, Piute Meadow, Slide Canyon. Bond and Brown Bear and Sonora Passes follow fast on one another, all going by too quickly. A ghost walks in Benson Ski Hut on Anderson Peak, just as described in the log book there. As soon as it is full dark, we hear footsteps pace the attic floor. When we move upstairs, the steps take up their watch on the floor below. "If anyone figures this out, write to me!" urges more than one mystified entry in the log. I can't fathom it.
In that same log book we meet the trip's most memorable personality. Coyote, the only through-hiker on the PCT in the high-water year of '82. Like his renegade totem he went unseen, but in various trail logs along the way we come to know this lone wolf who traveled on snow shoes through those months of record storms. As I ford a little creek without bothering to remove my boots, I picture him pacing the icy banks, knowing that at dawn when the water is lowest, he will balance his pack on his head and enter the neck-deep rapids, swollen just above the freezing point. He signed his terse entries in the log books with an expertly-drawn paw print and he never turned back.
In Belden we pick up the eighth and last supply box and don't talk about finishing the trip. Less than a hundred miles from Lassen and I want to go on walking in these autumn woods forever. "Golden aspen leaves drop like Christmas baubles on dark pines," says my log. But everywhere north of Tahoe oppression hovers in the empty reservoirs and the clear cut slopes torn by logging roads and all-terrain vehicle abuse. The days are too short. The nights too long to spend in a zippered sleeping bag, too cold to sit out. Our water bottles begin to freeze regularly and my fingers are numb and fumbling when I try to thread a needle.
For too long we avoid thinking about the end and now it is hard upon us. When we have climbed Lassen Peak and looked south down the spine of California, we silently head to the road and stick out our thumbs in a flurry of snowflakes that melt on my face. Every red taillight that passes signals to me: go back, go back, go back. Too soon a battered Oldsmobile pulls over for us. Inside is my all time favorite bartender, big, handsome Kiwi from the Santa Cruz Brew Pub. He'd left town after the earthquake in '89 and I hadn't seen him since. "I'm tending bar in Chico these days, mates, headed there right now. Come down with me and I'll draw the first pint to celebrate your return to the world."
"Great," I say, distracted by how hard it is to breathe in the over warm car, clumsily trying to roll down the window, already tipsy from exhaust fumes and the cigarette Kiwi hands me as we speed down the mountain in one fifty-mile hour. Mark reaches out to dry my face with his mitten, but I turn away. "It will always be here, Susan," he says.
Of course he was right. Today I sit kicking my desk leg, knowing it is all there, forever whole and complete. The rivers fall, the moon fills, the trail up ahead is shining like heaven. Coyote sings his harsh music. And I am not there.